Grischa Huber, the magnetic German star who died this year aged 76, became a feminist icon in European cinema with one of her first features. She was an established stage performer by the time she was cast by director Helma Sanders-Brahms as a politically engaged theatre actor in the film Unter dem Pflaster ist der Strand (Under the Pavement Lies the Strand, 1975). The title refers to a slogan popular during the 1968 protests in France: “Sous les pavés, la plage!” Literally, this was a reference to the sand beneath dislodged stones thrown in riots; metaphorically, it implied a beach-like utopia unspoilt by modern society.
Huber’s character, also named Grischa, is appearing in a Greek drama about how the ancient rule of women has been abolished by men. A striking shot captures the actresses joined in a silent scream; Sanders-Brahms will go on to explore how women in the 1970s are still being silenced, but are uniting to redefine their roles in society.
The film follows a rekindled relationship between Grischa and her co-star, Heinrich (played by Heinrich Giskes). Their opening conversation dwells authentically on how actors can feel after giving a performance. An anticlimactic sense of depletion hangs in the dressing room as they remove their makeup. Neither wants to leave the theatre and return home – she lives with her partner, he with his dogs – and they delay for so long they end up getting locked in.
Grischa, who is piercingly self-analytical throughout the film, wishes that the agency and vitality she feels when acting could be transposed to the rest of her life. Sanders-Brahms considers the theatrical essence of the couple’s off stage activities. Their wistful reminiscences of late 60s demonstrations in Berlin remind us that protests are essentially a performance. (“We’ve crawled back in our shells,” says Heinrich, observing how the spirit of that time has dissipated, and the leftwing movement has become more fractured.) When Grischa decides she wants to have sex with Heinrich, they essentially design and decorate their own set for the encounter. A friend’s bedroom is borrowed, bedding laid on the floor, lights adjusted and music put on for a scene that is both tender and playful, captured by Sanders-Brahms with gentle humour.
Huber and Sanders-Brahms were both in their early 30s when they created the film and they became forces within the booming New German Cinema movement dominated by young directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. Sanders-Brahms puts a spin on the documentary form: her voiceover comments on Grischa’s activities, and there are cutaways to photographs of historical Votes for Women campaigns and childhood photos of Huber. A few years later, her film Deutschland Bleiche Mutter (Germany Pale Mother, 1980), featuring Fassbinder’s regular star Eva Mattes, incorporated newsreel footage in its blend of fact and fiction.
As an actor, Grischa chooses projects that align with her personal political interests. Sanders-Brahms shows her researching the working lives of women. She films interviews with mothers about how they combine childcare with factory shifts and talks to women who have had abortions. In another sort of film, Grischa might have directed her own drama as a result of this research, but Sanders-Brahms suggests that it is a much more personal quest than that. Grischa is trying to learn from the lived experiences of others in order to reach a decision about how she could manage to combine an acting career with raising a child.
What Grischa finds is that women are still silenced: many working mothers simply have no time to discuss their experiences, so tight are their schedules; others reflect on their conflict with men at home and at work. One woman confides how she was abused as a child, felt unable to speak of it, and how it affected her future relationships. Abortion in Berlin, Grischa learns, is granted only to women who essentially claim to be suicidal and mentally ill. Throughout these interviews, Grischa emerges as a questing, sensitive collaborator with her subjects – an intended contrast, presumably, to the stony-faced man directing the Greek drama in the opening scenes. Huber’s focused vitality drives the film and is eventually perceived as a threat by Heinrich who, petulantly, attempts to disrupt her research and claims he is being neglected.
Grischa gains artistic and personal self-fulfilment, and self-determination, through her interviews with other women and emerges as a different kind of actor to Heinrich, who she identifies as unable to give voice to his inner feelings. While she is still a passionate believer in theatre’s power to affect change, he tells his new lover: “We tried to change the world through theatre. Nothing happened. I think it’s arrogant for an actor to go and tell workers what it’s all about.” This disregards Grischa’s considered attempts to collaborate with workers on understanding their stories.
Sanders-Brahms studied acting before becoming a director, partly on the encouragement of Pier Paolo Pasolini, and also explored relationships between actors in her film Flügel und Fesseln (The Future of Emily, 1984). Under the Pavement was made with the help of Berlin’s Schaubühne theatre, where both of its stars also performed. Even though there are few scenes of the drama within the film, and it does not explore stage life as directly as other films in this series, theatre’s potential to merge the personal with the political lies at its heart.
• Under the Pavement Lies the Strand is available on all-region DVD.